My friend Terence Eden has recently opened his new consultancy, Open Ideas. So I was keen to get an appointment in the diary with him.
Sandra and I have run our business - a small law firm, decoded.legal - for coming up 8 years now. It’s just the two of us (and these days, the legal advice aspect is mostly me alone), and I quite like it that way… Mostly.
Truth be told, we’ve had it pretty easy. There’s been the odd quiet week, in which I’ve wondered if I’ll ever work again, and plenty of weeks where boy has it been busy. But we’ve never - so far - struggled to find work, or keep our clients happy enough to pay their bills.
I am always thinking about how we can do better and, in particular, how we can use tech^1 to improve what we do. Given Terence’s impressive tech background, I felt like a chat would be a very wortwhile investment.
And I was right, but not for the reasons I was expecting.
I was writing up some notes of our call, for me, and then I thought, “well, why not blog them?”.
It was not the conversation I was expecting
It wasn’t quite the conversation I was expecting.
Actually, it wasn’t the conversation I was expecting at all.
I was going into this hoping to draw on Terence’s broad technology background, with the goal of exploring whether there is tech out there that I might simply not have come across before, or thought about as being useful.
I’m a sceptic of AI, for example, but perhaps there would be ways of using it that I hadn’t considered, which don’t have the legal and ethical challenges of the currrent crop of mass scale generative AI trained on other people’s work.
I’ve been interested in exploring document assembly technology but, for a lot of what I do, I’m not sure just how useful it would be. A lot of what I do - the majority of what I do - is advisory work, not contract drafting. But perhaps I am wrong: perhaps it would be useful in ways I haven’t considered.
We talked a bit about tech, but far, far less than I had anticipated.
What does “better” mean?
We had a useful chat about what I meant when I said that I want to do things “better”.
To a higher standard?
To serve more clients?
To cover more areas of law?
And my conclusion is that I’m not entirely sure, and I probably need to be. If I don’t know what effect I want to achieve, I won’t be able to sensibly plan how to get there, or have any way of measuring success.
What are my constraints?
It would be sensible for me to jot down what my constraints (self-imposed, or otherwise) are.
For example, I turn away a lot of work. Probably more than I take on. If I don’t want to hire another lawyer (and I am utterly unconvinced that I do), then that’s a pretty significant constraint if a “better” is turning away less - there might be ways in which I can be more efficient, but I’d be closing off one pretty obvious option.
A second, very much also self-imposed, one is that I am keen to build our business using Free and open source software. And while that has been amazing for me, it is a constraint. Something came up the other day which, if I’d had a subscription to a particular propertiary service, I’d probably have been able to do trivially. Using Free software, it appears to be much harder. So by choosing only Free software, I’m closing off that option (without spending a lot more time digging into it).
I should be clearer with myself about what my constraints are, and I can work out whether they are real or imagined, or whether they are constraints I wish to work aorund.
Getting more direct feedback from former clients
I felt a bit naive after I’d said that everyone I’ve helped over the last 8 years left happy. I assume that, and I very much hope that, but I don’t know for sure.
I ask for feedback, in the sense of checking that someone was happy with the work before I send a bill. With ongoing clients (who make up the vast majority of my work), I have regular chats about how things are going, and to see how I can do things better.
But what I’ve never done is contact the people from whom I don’t hear any longer, and see if they have any feedback. Not in a “pitching for more work” way, but genuinely in a “looking for honest feedback” kind of way. I need to give this some thought, but it might give me some useful information.
(I am confident that there will be some people who were disappointed that I wasn’t able to take on work for them.)
I occasionally ask online for ideas, and some of the people who respond are clients. I think there’s some value in doing this, in terms of hearing about things that I might not otherwise have thought about. But there’s also a strong element of bias to take into account, as lots of the people with whom I interact online are very much on the tech side of things. But then so are many of my clients, so…
We talked about competitor analysis.
Now, this is something that I’ve never done in any formal sense.
I know roughly who does similar things to me, and roughly what they’d do, but nothing more than that. I don’t know exactly how they do it, or what it would be like to be a client of theirs.
I have a group of lawyers to whom I would happily refer work which I couldn’t handle. I have had lots of feedback from people saying that they were happy with the referral, but I’ve never followed up with the people I didn’t hear from, to see how it went. Perhaps I should (without making it sound like a pitch for work).
Perhaps I should be better at finding out what the experience of working with other lawyers is like, and nicking the “good” bits.
Terence also opened my mind what he hinted that, perhaps, “other lawyers doing similar stuff to me” was too narrow a definition of “competitor”. Perhaps I should be thinking more broadly, in terms of “ways potential clients would spend their money if not with me”. So perhaps taking on some more risk and keeping the cash in their bank, or buying a document online, or going to an accountant instead, or whatever it might be. This needs some more thinking.
(We’re slightly odd, as a tiny law firm, in that we’re often in competition with massive London law firms - we’re only at least three “panels” where we are, by a long, long way, the smallest company there. Sitting around tables in panel meetings with senior partners from international firms is a bit of a weird experience, for them as much as me, sometimes, particularly as I’m typically the least lawyer-like lawyer in the room.)
I have a lot of thinking to do, because it was such an eye-opening conversation.
In writing up these notes, it strikes me that so much of this is - or should be - obvious. And that’s the joy of talking to an expert: in 30ish minutes, things which I hadn’t thought about before now stand out to me as being obvious. That’s a good thing - if I were left none the wiser, or baffled by expertise, I’d have wasted my money.
I don’t think that I need to rush into anything, as things are going well, but nor do I want to get complacent just because things seem to be going well.
Neil, have you thought about…?
I’m always interested in hearing ideas for how I can do things better, work-wise. Genuinely. If you want to share an idea, please do!
^1 But not all tech. See below about FOSS.